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The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music: From Adele to Ziggy, the Real A to Z of Rock and Pop

Dylan Jones

(Picador; US: Oct 2012)

There’s much to admire about encyclopedic works on music, but far too often mammoth amounts of primary facts are smothered in obsessively compiled supplementary superfluousness. Dylan Jones’s The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music: From Adele to Ziggy, the Real A to Z of Rock and Pop, deliberately sets out to avoid that monotony by reveling in lively subjectivity. As Jones, editor in chief of British GQ, spells out in his introduction, he “treats subjectivity with respect”. Accordingly, The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music is opinionated and idiosyncratic, with Jones’s “personal prejudice, contrary predilections, and non-cognitive taste” felt strongly throughout.


Jones’s methodology certainly provides for ample clear-cut opinions and reflections on popular music and entertainment veterans. Of course, that same personalized perspective has its limitations, too. Jones’s book, in the main, comprises well-known artists who’ve had their stories told many times, and it isn’t as comprehensive as its title would suggest—although, I’m sure its grandiose title is supposed to be taken with a grain of salt, at least I hope so. To be fair to Jones, he never claims to be providing anything other than a guided tour of his own musical experiences, and while you may find fault in (or yawn about) his choices of artists, this is his tale, and he makes it very clear that subjectivity encompasses all, choices included. 


Jones injects plenty of hilarity into his biographic entries, seeing Kraftwerk as, “The best passive-aggressive dance band since the age of swing”, Coldplay as, “…the revenge of the nice” and current fans of the Jam as the kinds of people who “wear sunglasses and chew gum at weddings and funerals”. Intertwined with all the pithiness and biting humor is a great deal of obvious adoration, particularly when Jones discusses those artists he finds most meaningful.


Disagreeing with Jones’s criticisms and commentary is all part of the fun, and you can’t fault his candidness. The inclination to quarrel with him one minute and smirk gleefully the next is strong, especially when he can dismiss Sonic Youth’s entire career in two lines, and then devote 12 pages to Ringo Starr. It’s side-splittingly funny, and slightly maddening at the same time, and while we’ve been forewarned as to Jones’s intentions, it’s still perplexing when he covers the enduring legacy of The Fall or Throbbing Gristle in brief, sardonic snippets, while prattling on for pages about Dean Martin. Certainly, there’s a sense of mischievousness to it all, and one wouldn’t be advised to take it too seriously.


A clear autobiographical thread emerges as the book leaps from artist to artist in waves of admiration or scorn and The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music works best when Jones, through stories and reprinted interviews, gives his personal accounts of meeting artists, such as in the 20 fascinating pages covering Keith Richards (the book’s best passage by far). But the book begins to break down when he spends many other pages on artists such as Terence Trent D’Arby.


If you counterpoint the space Jones gives to a raft of safe, mainstream friendly fare with single paragraph entries on artists like Joy Division/New Order or Public Enemy, then you’ll see the gaps (and frustrations) his subjectivity brings. Jones fills his lengthier commentaries with plenty of wit, and they provide a vivid account of how certain artists have shaped his life over time. But in dedicating pages to artists like Lenny Kravitz (or to Hugh Laurie’s musical adventures), The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music often reads like a bewildering privileging of the markedly less-than-innovative over the truly influential and original.


Of course, highly opinionated is what Jones promised, and he delivers on that; summing up Willie Nelson’s career with a blowjob joke or mentioning that Kurt Cobain’s suicide was all “a bit pat”. The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music is appealing in its witticisms and snappy lines, but it’s a curious mix , where absorbing observations, such as insightful pieces on Chet Baker and The Cramps, are set around some (almost) ambivalent or offhand entries.


At close to 900 pages, The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music could have been much improved by cutting many of those shorter entries—as funny as they often are. Its real issue is that it reads like two books in one—each competing for the reader’s attention. The first is an entertaining and wry memoir, with Jones’s love of music shining through, and the second is a droll and frequently hilarious denouncement of artists Jones dislikes or fails to understand. Both make for amusing tales in their own right, but blended together they make The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music a decidedly bumpy ride. Still, life isn’t a straight and narrow course, and perhaps that was Jones’s intention in the end—subjectivity being both a bane and a boon.

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Craig Hayes is based in Aotearoa New Zealand, and he is a contributing editor and columnist at PopMatters. Alongside his reviews and feature articles, Craig's monthly column, Ragnarök, traverses the metal spectrum. He is the co-author of PopMatters' regular metal round-up, Mixtarum Metallum, contributes to radio shows and numerous other sites, and he favours music that clangs, bangs, crashes, or drones. Craig can be found losing followers daily on twitter @sixnoises.


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